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from the September 2020 issue

In ‘The Death of Comrade President,’ A Sophisticated Portrait of a Country in Crisis

Reviewed by Kevin Canfield

Mabanckou imbues his narrative with the qualities of a minor epic, placing his young protagonist at the heart of a frightening yet wry tale about politics and murder, family and loyalty, necessary lies and storytelling itself.

Alain Mabanckou’s new novel begins on a Saturday and ends the following Monday, a compressed timeline that suggests a story of limited scope. Told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who hopes to track down a missing family pet, this book brims with the kind of private longings and granular observations that are often associated with small, intimate works of fiction. And yet, in under 250 pages, Mabanckou imbues his narrative with the qualities of a minor epic, placing his young protagonist at the heart of a frightening yet wry tale about politics and murder, family and loyalty, necessary lies and storytelling itself. 

Michel, our narrator, is an observant only child of thirteen or fourteen. He lives in Pointe-Noire, in the Republic of the Congo. As The Death of Comrade President opens, it’s March 19, 1977, and Michel is eager to remark on all that he sees, hears, and has been tasked to do in Voungou, his working-class neighborhood. He lives with his mother, Pauline, who sells fruit at a market, and his father, Roger, a staffer at a posh hotel, in a two-room house “made out of okumé boards, with a roof of corrugated iron and plywood windows.”

The family is running low on palm oil, peanut butter, red wine, and tobacco, so Michel’s been sent to a neighbor’s unpredictable shop. “There are no set prices; it depends on whether or not you know Ma Moubobi,” he explains. “That’s why the shop’s called Case by Case.” The day is off to an uneventful start, save for one difference: the normally talkative broadcasters heard on the Voice of the Congolese Revolution, the socialist government’s radio arm, have been replaced by ceaseless Soviet music.

Though his parents and teachers chide him for being an absent-minded “dreamer”—he has an artist’s worldview and has begun to write poetry, but he often drops coins when he’s sent to the market—Michel is a highly capable boy, and he completes his shopping run without incident. Now he’s ready to join his parents for a lunch of pork and plantains. At which point his world is upended by a series of distressing developments.

First, the Soviet music stops, and from Roger’s radio, the family hears a man’s voice, broadcasting from Brazzaville, the capital city. The nameless speaker announces the killing of “our dynamic leader of the Congolese Revolution, Comrade Marien Ngouabi.” According to the broadcaster, the murderers are a unit of rogues acting in concert with craven imperialists. The details of the dictatorial president’s assassination are vague, but no one doubts that the days ahead will be turbulent.

These slow-paced, foreboding initial episodes lay the foundation for Mabanckou’s construction of a story that deals as much with headline-grabbing events from Congo’s recent history as with the corresponding distortions that appear in political discourse and news reports. It’s the kind of mordant work that Mabanckou, who was born in the Republic of the Congo and teaches literature at UCLA, has been doing for some time. His novel Black Moses—also set in the Republic of the Congo in the 1970s—was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Today, he’s in the prime of an estimable career, the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction. (In a memoir, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, Mabanckou writes about his parents Pauline and Roger; they appear to have inspired aspects of his depiction of Michel’s parents, who have the same names.) The Death of Comrade President draws on these various strands of Mabanckou’s work to provide the reader with a captivating and sophisticated portrait of the country in a time of crisis.

As Michel and his parents sit in astonished silence, the family dog, Mboua Mabé, seems to realize that something’s wrong. He “stops eating, stares at the radio, pricks up his ears, turns around and dashes” off, Michel tells us. Mboua Mabé means “bad dog” in Lingala, one of several languages Michel’s family speaks, so perhaps he’s just making good on his name. Or maybe he senses that chaos is in the offing. Roger dislikes Mboua Mabé but gives him grudging credit for his intelligence; just a few pages earlier, he launches into a comic screed against the animal: “He won’t even guard the house! Look at him, he’s a hypocrite, an enemy of the Congolese Socialist Revolution!” Whatever the reason, the dog is on the run—and Michel is inconsolable. “I had promised to protect Mboua Mabé,” he says. He’ll spend much of the novel trying to sneak away to look for his canine friend.

That would be a hazardous mission, however. The autocrat’s murder triggers a predictable crackdown. Within hours, Michel’s neighborhood is filled with soldiers patrolling in military trucks; there’s a 7:00 p.m. curfew, and public gatherings are prohibited. Former president Alphonse Massamba-Débat, deposed by Ngouabi in a 1968 coup, is among a group of politicos who will be charged with—and summarily executed for—Ngouabi’s killing.

The dire situation gets worse when some well-connected relatives drop by with another piece of stunning news: Michel’s Uncle Luc, a Brazzaville-based military officer, has been killed in a post-assassination fit of violence. For hazy reasons, Luc was among those blamed for the president’s death, and his family isn’t safe. “So you’re telling me these wicked soldiers from Brazzaville are going to come to my house and murder me right in front of Michel, like they murdered my brother in front of his wife and children?” his mother asks. The visitors would like to assuage her fears, but they can’t guarantee she’ll be spared.

The novel’s middle and closing acts are increasingly tense, as Michel contends with the fallout from seismic political shifts, some of which have been set in motion by decisions made in European capitals decades before his birth. With his mother’s life in jeopardy, Mabanckou’s youthful narrator is drawn into a confrontation that will make him rethink his developing notions of state power and basic honesty. Meanwhile, Michel’s discussions with his parents, teachers, and others in the community provide the reader with at least a rudimentary understanding of his nation’s history. 

The Republic of the Congo was colonized by the French in the 1880s and gained its independence nearly a century later. During the Cold War, the country affiliated itself with the Soviet Union and other socialist states. In the years since, Mabanckou suggests, the nation has often been profoundly misunderstood by Europeans and Americans. He drives home this latter point in a satirical set piece, in which a patronizing foreign journalist is heard on a French-language radio broadcast promoting his simplistic, tone-deaf reporting: “As discussed in detail in my book Night Falls over Africa, political assassinations on the dark continent have become a sinister tradition.”

Scenes like this serve a dual purpose, showcasing Mabanckou’s talent for subtle yet searing humor while encouraging his readers to push back against narratives informed by ignorance and misrepresentation.   

Sardonic and perceptive, The Death of Comrade President is particularly sharp when depicting Michel’s political indoctrination, which takes place in school lessons about the glories—and garb—of socialist countries. In one scene, Michel hilariously pivots from the clothing worn in the USSR to the evils of imperialism: “Sometimes we even had to dress like their people. We’d be wearing coats, gloves, furs, and shoes under the midday sun, like Europeans do in the depths of winter, because the sun doesn’t always shine over there, which is why lots of countries in that continent went off to colonize hotter places, so they could go there on holiday with their wives, children, sick grandparents, not to mention cats and dogs.” In Helen Stevenson’s vibrant translation, Mabanckou’s narrator is at once wide-eyed and aggrieved, a wholly realized character.  

Shortly after learning of the assassination, Michel recalls the many ways he and his fellow students were taught to revere Ngouabi, to revel in the details of his meetings with Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro, to start each school day by saying “nice things about Comrade Marien Ngouabi while standing by the national flag in the playground.” And yet, Michel “can’t get as upset as I should” over the president’s untimely death. He wonders if he should “rub chili in my eyes like widows do when they can’t squeeze out a tear for their husbands,” but fear stops him short. If his mother found out he did such a thing, there’d be even more trouble.

 

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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